In a recent comment, T Reddy says, “The idea of protecting self-esteem may have started out with looking at the psychology of the child in our decisions and approaches, however, it has evolved into protecting the child of any pain or discomfort or negativity at all costs. And sometimes that is detrimental to a child…We have lost the meaning of self-esteem – a healthy judgement of strengths and limitations. We see our imperfections and at the same we understand our self-worth is still intact.”
T Reddy makes a stellar point. Instilling “self-esteem” has largely come to mean protecting children from pain and discomfort at any cost. For adults, it has come to mean blustering bravado and the denial of personal flaws and limitations. In the gripping social analysis The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Campbell and Twenge dissect this modern vision of self-esteem. They say that self-esteem is not necessary to being able to love other people and that, in fact, self-esteem stands in the way of loving other people because it keeps us too focused on our own needs.
Much as I loved this book, I think it is a mistake to dismiss the entire idea of self-esteem. Moreover, I think it is a dangerous one for people who grew up in invalidating families-of-origin, people who’ve been struggling with a lifetime of negative self-talk and the all-pervading beliefs that we don’t matter, that we are somehow less-than others, or that our primary measure of value is what pleasure we bring to the narcissist or abuser in our life. We who have such a history should not dismiss the idea of self-esteem, we should embrace it.
We just need to be clear about the vision of self-esteem we’re embracing.
The “new and improved” self-esteem is rooted in the Self-Esteem Movement. It began in the 1970s, when some psychologists (Stanley Coopersmith, Nathaniel Branden, and Roy Baumeister, for example) put forth the idea that antisocial and undesirable behavior is rooted in low self-esteem. Some politicians latched onto this, and sponsored self-esteem programs in schools that they believed would provide a social vaccine of sorts against crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and other social ills believed to stem from low self-esteem. From this movement came tens of thousands of school programs designed to instill self-esteem in children, as well as non-profits like the Foundation for Self-Esteem, The Girl Scout/Unilever Self-Esteem Program, and the Dove Self-Esteem Toolkit. (Note: A google search for “self-esteem programs” returned 16 million results.) It also ushered in the age of the saccharine parenting we see so much of today that teaches children to relish their inherent specialness with little encouragement to develop it into much of anything. This is the mentality that claims we must “protect the child of any pain or discomfort or negativity at all costs” if we are to instill proper self-esteem.
In 2005, Roy Baumeister, one of the psychologists at the heart of the Self-Esteem Movement, published an article which refuted his earlier beliefs. Baumeister says the assertion that low self-esteem is the source of undesirable behavior was never supported by studies or data, and that there is now evidence that there is almost no correlation between self-esteem and behavior. Children with low self-esteem, he says, are just as likely to get good grades, to have satisfying relationships, and to finish college. Furthermore, Baumeister says that high self-esteem actually correlates with some undesirable behavior such as bullying and the inability to accurately assess things such as your own talents and how you are perceived by others. He concludes that “Non-profits should stop pushing self-esteem, and start endorsing self-control.”
But what does Baumeister mean by “self-esteem”? In this same article, he defines it as “How people evaluate themselves…Note that this definition doesn’t imply anything about reality. People with high self-esteem may indeed have accurate perceptions of their many fine qualities. But they may also just be arrogant. Likewise, people with low self-esteem may indeed have neurotic delusions of worthlessness. But they may also just be modest.” What Baumeister seems to be saying is that “how people evaluate themselves” isn’t a very useful measure of, well, much of anything. And that therefore, the effort to instill self-esteem in children is not a good way to produce well-adjusted, productive human beings–nor a good way to measure those same traits.
I agree that this approach to self-esteem doesn’t work. It has, in fact, been an epic failure. The main problem with the idea of instilling self-esteem in children is, I think, the whole idea of “instilling.” The Self-Esteem Movement created the mindset that parents and teachers could create confident, well-adjusted children merely by repeating positive messages and avoiding negative ones; that such repetition and avoidance was the stuff that self-esteem was made of, regardless of the demands imposed by reality. Seeing self-esteem in this light has had disastrous consequences. Rather than producing a generation of confident young adults with a realistic regard for themselves, we have a generation that, on the whole, has difficulty evaluating both themselves and the demands of life; a generation that believes in its own greatness despite much evidence to the contrary; a generation largely unburdened by the demands of accomplishment, moral development, or the hard truth of reality.
In other words, we have narcissism. Baumeister’s definition of self-esteem having little to do with reality is really closer to a definition of narcissism. So if he sees self-esteem in this narcissistic way, it makes perfect sense that he would believe it to be more a problem than a solution. (I only wonder why it took him nearly 30 years to figure it out.)
How ironic, that when self-esteem became the epicenter of American child-rearing and education, the sun around which all other education and child-rearing practices revolved, we lost the meaning of what true self-esteem actually is. Even more ironic is the fact that even though some of these early pioneers of the Self-Esteem Movement have declared themselves wrong, the Self-Esteem Movement is as strong as ever. Parents, teachers and non-profits continue the work of “instilling” self-esteem. New research is even being done to refute the research that threw a bushel over the Self-Esteem Movement’s light. Yes, some are taking the new findings seriously (such as Campbell and Twenge), but many continue to cling to the tenets of the Self-Esteem Movement.
I think this is because people want to believe the facile notion they can create confident, happy children merely by telling them that this is so; they also want to believe it for themselves. How much simpler it is to believe that positive affirmations and ignoring negativity are all it takes to create healthy self regard, in your children and in yourself; soooo much simpler than undertaking a process of introspection, effort, and moral development that actually would create healthy self regard. This is the definition of true self-esteem, a definition indelibly and inescapably tied to the demands of reality.
You cannot instill self-esteem in another human being anymore than you can instill happiness, good health, or any other positive trait. You can only teach them what personal development is and why it’s important. The rest is an inside job. This is what the old saying “anything worth having is worth working for” really means: the way to have “worth” is to achieve something. Nobody else can do that for you.
It’s telling, don’t you think, that Baumeister shifted his focus from self-esteem to self-control. After all, self-control is the main ingredient in the development of healthy self-esteem. A disciplined approach to setting and achieving goals and the capacity to delay gratification are primary building blocks of confidence and of healthy, realistic self-regard. More importantly, self-control is a more teachable concept, one which leaves little room for misinterpretation. Self-esteem is not.
For those of us who grew up in invalidating circumstances and were left with a surplus of negative self-imagery, I think it’s unwise to dismiss the idea of self-esteem completely. Instead, we need to work on having a realistic self-regard, but perhaps from the opposite angle of the narcissism now so pervasive in our culture. This is not to say we don’t also have our own narcissism to face and ferret out, because we do. But our more pertinent issues are going to lie in self-trust, self-forgiveness, and learning to give ourselves more credit, not less. In this sense, the originators of the self-esteem movement were right: there are a lot of us out there who need to learn how to trust, love, and forgive ourselves better. They just couldn’t have gotten the execution more wrong.
Non-narcissistic self-esteem cannot be bestowed on another person like a gift. Instead, it is a result of working on all of these: self-control, discipline, goal-setting, achievement, a clear sense of reality, moral development, and self-trust, self-awareness, and self-honesty. Using platitudes and positive affirmations in an attempt to achieve healthy self-esteem is like running a marathon without ever having trained for it. It’s appealing because it’s easier, but it’s not going to get you very far.
I’ll end with a comment from one of the articles I found while researching this topic. It sums it all up beautifully, I think:
Our society has plenty of children who hold unrealistic notions about themselves, i.e., who have “self-esteem.” What is lacking in our society is children who are certain that they are loved. The reason is simple: They’re not. People who are certain that they are loved do not need to be inculcated with narcissistic delusions about themselves (i.e., “self-esteem”). Since we have a shortage of the former, we have an abundance of the latter.
I love birds. We feed the chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and woodpeckers who live here all year round, along with the occasional crow, red-tailed hawk, or barred owl (who comes for the rodents the seed attracts, not the seed itself). But mid-April to the end of May is the most exciting time of year because it’s when the summer birds come back, and also when the migrants pass through on their way north to their nesting grounds. It’s possible to see dozens (maybe even hundreds) of species during this time. The birds are dressed in their brightest plumage and singing their little hearts out in hopes of attracting a mate, making them not only at their most beautiful, but also easier to identify. This year was a particularly good spring for birding because of the unusually cold weather. Many migrating birds stayed longer than normal, and they were easier to see because the trees took so long to leaf out (the lilacs are about two weeks behind schedule, too). I thought I’d share some photos (downloaded from the Internet, not taken by me) of some of the more beautiful and unusual ones.
The ducks and other water birds arrive first, either to stay for the summer, like the mallards, wood ducks, blue-winged teal, and Canada geese, or to rest and feed in the icy waters before continuing their journey north. Here are two of the more interesting water birds I saw this year:
Then come the shorebirds and waders like the herons, sandpipers, gulls, and terns. There are several species of sandpipers and gulls which are nearly impossible to tell apart without years of birding experience. This spring, we had two white-faced ibises in a marsh just a few miles from our house. This bird lives primarily south and west of here, and is in decline (although not endangered), so it was an unusual sighting, attracting birders from all over. This was a “life bird” for me, meaning I had never seen one before. They were spectacular:
You can’t tell from this photo, but in the sunlight, their feathers shine an iridescent purple-green. Isn’t he something?
It’s always a thrill to see that first-of-year (that’s “FOY” to we birders), no matter how common the bird is, like the red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, goldfinch, and bluebird (which is actually a much more accurate indicator of spring than the robin). Even more thrilling is seeing some of the common, but less frequently seen species. Here are some of my favorites:
Bobolink, in the blackbird (icterid) family
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (finch family)
Baltimore Oriole, in the blackbird (icterid) family
Indigo Bunting (finch family)
American Kestrel (a small falcon)
Killdeer (a sandpiper)
But of all the birds, the wood warblers are my favorites (or just warbler for short, as we don’t get anything other than wood warblers here). There are at least 37 species of these tiny songbirds (depending on how you classify them), and more than half of them pass through this area on their migration north. A good birder can see more than 20 species in a day; my best day this year was 11. These three warblers live here in the summer, yet I still get a thrill every time I hear or see one:
And these are some of those passing through I was lucky enough to see:
Black and White
Finally, here are some of my life birds for this spring, the birds I had never seen before:
Northern Parula (warbler)
Black-throated Green Warbler
Northern Waterthrush (a warbler, despite the name)
Ovenbird (another thrush-like warbler)
Blue-headed Vireo (not a warbler)
I had a few more life birds, but these are the most exciting ones.
Watching birds is a peaceful way to commune with nature, and to become more mindful and respectful of the habitat which surrounds us. If you want to learn more, google “birding” for your area, or buy a field guide (such as this one) to your local birds. You will be amazed at how much is going on right in your own back yard.
On Through the Looking Glass and Caliban’s Sisters, we’ve been discussing the physical component of emotional stress–in particular, the fallout from dealing with toxic FOO (family-of-origin) situations (brilliantly dubbed “Toxic FOO Syndrome, or TFS, by CS). We have discussed everything from adrenal fatigue to celiac disease, and have pretty much concluded that many conditions of “unknown causes” are quite likely a direct result from unresolved emotional stress.
This got me thinking about all the bodywork I’ve done over the years, and what a huge impact it has had on my recovery. By bodywork, I mean (according to Wikipedia) “any therapeutic, healing or personal development technique that involves touching, energy medicine, or physical manipulation.” This is the “alternative medicine” definition–in mainstream medicine, there is no such thing as “bodywork” in this sense. Mainstream medicine does not concern itself with the mind/body connection, with a few notable exceptions such as Andrew Weil and Henry Emmons (author of The Chemistry of Joy). Most doctors will actually discourage such work, and instead refer you to a psychologist or just write a scrip for antidepressants and go about their business. It’s kind of a classic case of ignoring what you can’t explain, but I suppose that is another topic.
If I remember correctly, my start down this path was as simple as wanting to get a massage, and finally giving myself permission to spend the money on it. I remember feeling really excited about taking care of myself in this way–and then, having a big emotional reaction afterward. I felt shameful and embarrassed, like I’d done something terribly wrong and stupid. But at this point, I was far enough along to know that instead of giving in to those feelings, I needed to challenge them. I did so by diving headfirst into the world of bodywork and not looking back.
Here’s a list of some of the bodywork I’ve done over the years, and I’m probably forgetting one or two:
rolfing (a deep, intense form of massage)
tai chi and qigong
guided meditation massage
The massage led to rolfing, and rolfing led to a physical release of emotions I’d never experienced before. I can actually remember the sensation of toxins leaving my body through my breath–they tasted like cigarette smoke! The rolfer told me that I might have some big emotional reactions over the next few days, and she was right. It was then that I really knew I was onto something.
I found all of these practitioners by word-of-mouth. Some through people in my AA meetings, some through co-workers, some through other friends. The “guided meditation massage” was a recommendation of my dear therapist Richard, and it was wonderful. The woman, her name was Diana, would massage different parts of my body and ask me to describe the visions I saw as she did this. I know it sounds odd, but it really helped me connect my psychic and emotional pain to my body. I only saw her a few times but she was a really important part of my recovery.
I don’t remember who pointed me toward the cranial-sacral/myofacial practitioner, Angel, but she was wonderful as well. She was a natural healer on a par with Carolyn Myss. (I know she is as new-agey as it gets, but there is some evidence that she actually has some sort of healing intuition.) It was almost miraculous how Angel could take one look at me and poke at the exact area of my body where I was holding my stress. (“Does it hurt here?” “Yipes! Yes, it hurts there!” lol) She also did guided vision work as she treated me. Her healing was the most physically/mentally/spiritually integrated I’ve ever experienced.
The applied kinesiologist, whom I found through my pilates instructor, seemed to me a bit emotionally repressed, but perhaps it was just his bedside manner. I didn’t believe a single thing he said about how A.K. works, but he, too, was able to help me get at some major stuck feelings. I only saw him a half dozen times or so but he was also a huge part of my recovery (he was terribly expensive, and required me to buy new supplements at every visit until I had a cupboard full of barely-used drops and pills, which it killed me to throw out because they were so spendy, but he insisted that I do so).
Qigong, meditation, and pilates were ongoing practices that I did for years. I’ve gotten away from them now, which makes me a little bit sad, because I can’t begin to measure how much this mindful bodywork did to help me along my path. (This is probably another reason mainstream medicine stays away from these things: they are extremely difficult to measure and quantify. Intangibility is not something science is good at dealing with–but just because something is intangible doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial. Certainly, the proof is in the results.)
Now, I know bodywork is a bit controversial. Because this is alternative medicine, any old quack can hang out a shingle and call himself a bodyworker (and I’ve known a few who have). Bodywork can be a lot of things, from the laying on of crystals to erotic massage. So in seeking out bodyworkers, you have to be careful. As I said, word-of-mouth was the best recommendation I could find.
You also have to be careful about believing how they explain what they do. As much as I loved some of my bodyworkers, I thought their explanations for how they “altered my vibrational energy” or “worked at a molecular level” were hogwash. I think it’s more likely that most of them don’t know how they heal, or how they’re able to see and bring up the things they see. Their explanations, like many found in the New Age movement, are pseudoscientific attempts to lend their work credibility.
Which is too bad, because it’s really unnecessary and is off-putting to a critical thinker. The work speaks for itself, and in my case, it spoke volumes.
I certainly don’t claim to know how bodywork works. But I suspect that it might be as simple as “healing touch,” which is something we not only never experienced in childhood, but something that we didn’t even know was necessary to healthy development. So when we start to experience this healing touch, it sort of gives our stuck, dissociated feelings “permission” to come to the surface–which they are longing to do, anyway. The more of this we do, and the more variety of ways we do it, the more feelings are going to surface. This may be an incomplete theory, but it works for me. For now.
As for the natural healers, like Angel and Carolyn Myss, I don’t know. I would be the last person to advocate faith healing or the laying on of hands in curing physical illness, but there is some evidence that certain people have this gift in at least some capacity. Having experienced “open channels to God” during meditation experiences, I think it’s possible that some people just have more open channels than others. This might also explain talented artists and musicians who are otherwise pretty undeveloped (I think of the young Bob Dylan, who wrote unbelievably sublime songs about peace-love-and-understanding, but was otherwise a pretty self-centered jerk). If there is any truth to this theory, I certainly can’t say how it works. I chalk it up to one of the Great Mysteries of the Universe, and leave it at that. (I don’t have to understand everything in order to reap its benefits.)
But all of that comes dangerously close to pseudoscientific doublespeak, doesn’t it. The real point here is that bodywork works, and I don’t have to know why. I only have to know that it does.
I think recovery from emotional issues works best with a four-pronged approach: we are not just trying to heal emotionally and psychologically, but physically and spiritually, as well. For me, this meant therapy (the psychological and emotional aspects), 12 Step meetings (the spiritual aspect), and bodywork (the physical aspect). And pretty much in that order, because it took me awhile to figure out that the spiritual component was important, and even longer to figure out that the physical one was, too.
Today, I know beyond a doubt that all those stuck feelings have to go somewhere, and they overwhelmingly go into the body, where they stay until you give them a chance to release. It’s probably possible to find this release exclusively through emotional and psychological work (crying, for example). But the bodywork accelerated the healing process for me, and brought me in touch with aspects of my abuse that I don’t think I could have found any other way. It has the added bonus of providing powerful tools to 1) listen to the signals the body sends, which can be great clues to our emotional and psychological state; 2) center yourself, and 3) be fully in the present moment, which is the key to mindfulness. And mindfulness, I have found, is the key to everything–but I suppose that is another topic.
(Note: People instinctively work to keep the anxiety in their environment to a minimum all the time. I’ve read several great articles lately about effective ways to do this. This series is about ineffective ways people deal with their anxiety. If you’ve ever wondered at how some people behave, or what their motivations are, this might shed some light on it for you.)
I used to think addiction was about self-hatred, that it was a way people tried to destroy themselves. A slow form of suicide, as Kurt Vonnegut said about smoking–which fits the addiction statistics. While accurate numbers are difficult to determine (addiction and sobriety being a revolving door for so many), standard estimates are that about 10% of addicts attain long-term sobriety (usually measured as more than 5 years). The other 90% never get sober. Some live to old age, but many die prematurely, either from suicide, homicide, or drug-related illness. If a habit that results in early, violent death isn’t about self-hatred, what could it be about?
This view of addiction as an expression of self-hatred fit with my personal experience. When I was an active addict, the part of myself I most identified with was my low self-esteem. I drank and did drugs because this was the only way I knew how to manage my dark emotions: fear, anxiety, depression. For a while, it really worked: being high felt good and erased my problems like nothing else could. And by “a while,” I don’t mean just while I was high; the discovery of self-induced euphoria made the dark feelings more manageable even while sober. As a teenager, I knew drugs were the answer to all my problems. Deep down, I knew I was somehow a bad, flawed, less-than person. But drugs made me feel cool, like I’d found a solution few others knew about. I truly believed they were a way out of my internal hell. And I felt this way right up until I knew I was going to die if I didn’t quit. Talk about a bind! (Is it any wonder so few people get sober?)
Yet despite the physical danger that addicts routinely put themselves in–that I put myself in–I no longer believe addiction is about self-destructiveness. Addiction, like so many other human behaviors, is just another not-very-effective way people deal with their anxiety. The physical dangers associated with it are just side effects that addicts are willing to risk in order to soothe their anxiety.
As ironic as it sounds, I now believe addiction is borne out of self-love rather than self-hatred. It’s self-delusion, control, and hypervigilance all rolled into one big, promising package. It’s a way to calm nerves (when people say this about their drinking, they really mean it), gain confidence, and suppress inhibition. It is liquid courage (or solid or gaseous courage, depending on your drug of choice). While it lasts, it is a miraculous method for leaving fear and anxiety in the dust. It carries us away from those uncomfortable, messy parts of ourselves that we don’t like and don’t know how to deal with.
So it’s easy to see why people think addiction is about self-hatred and self-destructiveness: it does numb away the things we hate about ourselves. True. But we only do this in service of the things we love about ourselves, the things which we want to thrive. Addiction is more a way we try to fix what’s wrong than it is a way to kill what’s right. But because it isn’t a very effective way to fix what’s wrong, it usually ends up going the other way.
Most people who become addicts do so early in life, when they have few other skills to soothe their anxiety. These are typically people who have a lot of anxiety to deal with: kids with unhappy home lives, who haven’t been taught good skills to deal with their problems, or who, for various other reasons, have a lot of stress in their lives. When they first discover drugs and/or alcohol, it can feel like a dream come true (as I described about myself above). It can feel like the answer. And this can be a very powerful pull, a pull that quickly cements addiction into a regular habit. It’s like going from no security blanket to the ultimate security blanket in a matter of moments–just as long as it takes for that hit of weed to wash over your body, or for that alcohol to dull your senses, bringing on that lovely sense of comfortable numbness. When all you had prior to that was stress, anxiety, and dark, shameful feelings about yourself, you can imagine how wonderful that could be–and, how that compulsion comes from a desire to self-soothe, not to self-annihilate. And, being so wonderful, why addiction is such a difficult habit to break. This is why the 12 Steppers insist that an alcoholic won’t try to get sober until he hits bottom; until that happens, getting between an addict and his drug of choice is a lot like getting between a mama grizzly and her cub.
So, the great tragedy of addiction–and make no mistake, it is a great tragedy, and a great waste of precious human life–lies not in its destructiveness, but rather, in its chronic ineffectiveness. People who get stuck in this terrible rut con themselves into thinking they’re doing something about their anxiety when they’re really doing next to nothing. They mistake relief for recovery, then get caught in the awful cycle of going back for more and more relief. Worst of all, they stop looking for real recovery, and generally don’t start again until they have been destroyed by their addiction (that’s hitting bottom). Addiction is one of the worst states of stuckness a person can find herself in. As one friend of mine would say, addicts never get their planes off the runway.
Is it useful to see addiction as a self-soothing behavior rather than a self-destructive one? I think so, because as a former addict and a still fairly anxious person, I found this to be a great epiphany. Seeing my addiction as a way I tried to care for myself, ineffective as it was, rather than as a way I was trying to destroy myself changed the way I viewed my entire personal history. Turns out I was never acting out of self-loathing, or low self-esteem, or even a desire to run away from my problems. Instead, I was trying to take care of myself as best I could–it just wasn’t very good. Recovery wasn’t a shift from self-hatred to self-love; it was a conscious gathering of skills and understanding so that I could find more effective ways to soothe my anxiety and take better care of myself. Which means that the self-love was there all along. Even if I didn’t feel it. Even if I didn’t believe it. Even if I didn’t think I deserved it. Like a dandelion sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk or clinging to the face of a cliff, my self-love was always present, always trying to break through–always trying to get my attention. I’m so grateful it finally did.
Today I believe this is true for everyone: that no matter how obscured it may be by life circumstances and tragic events, we all have a core of self-love that will not be denied. And all attempts to soothe anxiety, from self-delusion to addiction, are ways, however skewed, of serving that self-love. Perhaps the greatest human tragedy is that many of us never figure this out, and self-destruct in the process of trying because we never quite got our planes off the runway.
All of these bad, ineffective ways to deal with anxiety–not just addiction–can be incredibly hard habits to break. People talk about the dismal rate of recovery from addiction, but I think this is only because addiction is more measurable than some of the other bad habits people develop. If we could measure, I think we’d find the percentage of people who move past self-delusion, control, manipulation, and hypervigilance to be similar to those of addiction: that those who recover number 10% or less. Giving up those security blankets, ratty and threadbare as they may be, is a lot to ask of a person. For many, it is simply too much.
I think this is why we see soooo many people around us, from our FOOs to our workplaces, being fundamentally dishonest with themselves, manipulative, controlling, and seeking power over others in an attempt to feel better about themselves. They don’t know better, and they don’t really want to know better. They really believe that what they’ve found works. Looking beyond it makes them anxious, so they choose not to. We ought have compassion for how stuck these people are, and for how little they understand about themselves. But often, we have to have this compassion from a distance, because these people can be unpredictable and ruthless and cruel.
Truly effective ways to soothe anxiety revolve around greater understanding of both the problem and ourselves. What makes me anxious, and why? How do I deal with it as honestly as possible? Where are my blocks? How do I move past them? What in my personal history affects my anxiety today? Do I need professional help? Will pharmaceuticals or supplements help me? What am I doing every day to deal with my anxiety? Answering these questions will go a long way toward finding healthy, effective ways to deal with your anxiety. At least, they certainly have for me.
Also important, I think, is understanding that anxiety is just part of life, to be neither feared nor escaped. It can be managed, and should be. But trying to avoid it is like trying to avoid life itself, which leaves you with a big ol’ handful a nothin’.
So, after ten years (that is, the entire time we’ve been together) of putting it off, I finally agreed to take the conceal-carry permit class with my partner. Every time he’s brought it up in the past, I’ve said, “Go ahead if you want. I’m not interested.” Furthermore, I thought it a waste of time and money since it’s unlikely I would ever carry a gun in any situation ever. But he found a really cheap class, in our neighborhood, that was only an additional ten dollars for a spouse. Besides, I have a hard time saying “no” to my sweetie. So I spent last Sunday morning and early afternoon learning how to carry a concealed firearm.
I don’t have a huge aversion to guns in general. I know many of you reading this might be horrified by that statement, and believe me I understand. But I grew up in the country, in a time when having a rifle rack in your pickup window was completely normal and marked no one as antisocial. I learned how to shoot at a pretty young age. I even hunted a few times (although never shot anything.)
But as far as having a gun now, I just haven’t been interested. Too much work! Carrying a firearm would require a whole psychic shift because having a gun in your possession is pointless unless you’ve prepared yourself to use it. This last would mean not just buying and carrying a gun, but putting in a lot of time practicing with it. Going to shooting ranges. Firing it a lot. Loading and re-loading. Knowing how to clear jams. Investing in a holster or some other means of concealment. Being able to access it quickly, when my adrenaline is pumping and I am scared to death. Basically, becoming comfortable with using lethal force–and this is primarily a psychological obstacle that I’m not sure any amount of training will overcome. Because no matter how hard I’ve tried (although frankly, I haven’t tried that hard), I couldn’t imagine myself doing any of this.
Besides, have you seen the types of people that hang out at shooting ranges? I went to one about two years ago, again at Jim’s request. For overt displays of testosterone, a shooting range puts all sporting events to shame. The bigger the gun, the bigger the…well, never mind. Suffice to say nobody’s fooling anyone. But I couldn’t imagine myself part of that scenario ever.
Despite all of this, I went to the class. If nothing else, it would be an interesting sociological study, right? (And it definitely was.) But you know what? I actually learned some pretty interesting things.
There were about forty people in the class, which surprised the heck out of me; I’d had visions of Jim and me getting lots of personal attention and the class zipping by (leaving the rest of the day to do something I wanted to do) because really, how could there be much interest in this? But the teacher said all of his classes were at least that big, and that they fill up very quickly. Just as surprisingly, at least half of the class was women! Most of them were like me, spouses reluctantly attending at their husbands’ requests (which I determined by taking an informal poll during the lunch break). For some reason, I found this comforting. Maybe because I wasn’t the only one there under duress, mild though it was.
I thought the class would focus on the mechanics of handgun use and safety. But the teacher spent just a few minutes on this. He spent the rest of the day, to my amazement, on all the things about handguns that made me balk: that is, he discussed the psychological aspects of handguns.
His opening statement was that he got interested in guns because he “refused to be a victim.” This got my attention. Now, I know such a statement is stereotypical of people with a pro-gun mentality, and that there are plenty of ways not to be a victim besides owning a gun. But I like the basic idea that being a responsible gun owner can contribute to feeling empowered. It reminded me of past thoughts that if I ever had a daughter, I would put her in martial arts classes. (Any other pursuits she was interested in, as well, but the martial arts would be mandatory.) Even today, women in our culture are still frequently conditioned to be victims. We are trained that submissiveness is sexy, that being quiet and demure and even passive makes us attractive. I don’t have to state here the name our culture has for bold, assertive women, but we all know it isn’t a positive one.
So he’d gotten my attention. On principle alone, I am all for women “refusing to be victims.”
After sharing his beliefs about not being a victim (some of which I agreed with and some of which I didn’t), Dog (the guy reminded me of Dog the Bounty Hunter) shared some interesting statistics. For example, that states with the most liberal conceal-carry laws have the lowest crime rates. And that Switzerland, where all men are required to give two years of military service, and all households are required by law to have an automatic rifle, has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (Dog said the lowest, but my follow-up Google research indicates it probably is not.) And it is true also that since conceal-carry was passed in my state, violent crimes have decreased slightly–although it is impossible to say whether these statistics are causally related. I should also say here that I have found it difficult to find unbiased gun information on the Internet, with numbers varying wildly depending on the source, and that getting to the true percentages would require a fair amount of time and energy. But Dog’s logic, as he presented it, sort of made sense to me: that in an armed populace, psychos are likely to think twice before opening fire on a crowd or committing a violent crime in general. He also gave several examples of situations where these maniacs were taken down quickly by an armed citizen or off-duty cop; these stories, he said, don’t make it into the mainstream news. If they’re true stories (which I know at least one was), then he’s right about that.
After this, he spent most of his time talking about all the situations and reasons where you don’t use a gun. He talked about the psychological impact of taking a life, even if it’s the life of a scumbag trying to rape or kill you. He talked about PTSD, including his own. He talked about the fact that the use of lethal force is never, ever justified to protect mere property, that it is only justified to protect life. He reiterated, over and over, that using a gun is absolutely the last resort, the very last thing you do–but also, that it is the only thing that equalizes the playing field between a woman and her male attacker (so much for my martial arts idea). He even talked about spirituality, our morally destitute society, and the necessity of forgiving those who’ve hurt us.
I did not agree with all of his beliefs, but I agreed absolutely that these were the right things to be talking about, particularly when making a decision as huge as whether or not to have the power to kill another human being.
After about four hours of listening to Dog drill home the impact of what carrying a gun would really be like, we all had to go outside and shoot in order to get our certification. It was a simple process. He loaded the guns and cleared the jams, and after a quick lesson on how to hold the gun and how to stand, we just went up to the target and shot five times. Then we went back inside, got our paperwork, and that was that. Anyone unfamiliar with guns would have absolutely no inkling what to do with one after this limited amount of training–but Dog had an answer for that too: just give him a call and make an appointment at his shooting range; that’s how you get proficient with the weapon. I have to say, this made sense to me too. After all, my initial objection to the whole thing was that I wasn’t willing to spend time becoming comfortable with a gun. Dog knew that somehow. It was almost as if he had read my mind.
I’m not saying I’m convinced that I need to carry a gun, although the 1-in-2 statistic that a woman will be the victim of a violent crime in her life was rather compelling (again, if true). What’s your plan when that happens, he asked us. What’s your plan when an intruder breaks into your house? How are you going to ensure that it’s a criminal and not your neighbor with Alzheimer’s before you shoot? What are you going to teach your children to do if they hear an intruder? What’s your escape route? Do you and your spouse have a plan if one of you is being held at gunpoint? What about when you’re downtown at night and you notice you’re being followed?
I had to admit that I didn’t have a plan, not for a single one of these scenarios. And that was a little disturbing.
Most of us go through life not thinking about these things. Most of us have no idea what to do if we’re attacked. We want to believe that our good nature and kindness to our fellow man will be enough, and that it’s best not to worry about those other things. But if I learned anything from my few hours with Dog, it was that not being a victim extends beyond how I see and conduct myself. It also means being prepared, not just for the possibility of violent crimes but for other things too, such as natural disasters, economic hard times, and even mortality. I have done a good job of taking ownership for my emotional well-being, but I now realize that this is not true on other fronts. My best plan of action for an emergency, I’m ashamed to admit, has been to hope that I never have one.
So no, I’m not going to run out and buy a gun. But I’m glad I went to this class, because I think I learned two important things. The first is that I am not as prepared as I should be for certain things, and if I don’t want to be a victim, I have to address this. The second, and much more controversial, thing I learned is that there probably is such a thing as a responsible gun owner, and that there just might be a place for these people in our society.
(The floor is now open. Know that I am not terribly prepared to defend this post because I’m still not sure how much I believe it. Opposing views are welcomed and encouraged.)
(Note: People instinctively work to keep the anxiety in their environment to a minimum all the time. I’ve read several great articles lately about effective ways to do this. This series is about ineffective ways people deal with their anxiety. If you’ve ever wondered at how some people behave, or what their motivations are, this might shed some light on it for you.)
Years ago I had a friend who tried to manage her anxiety by trying to control every aspect of her life to an alarming degree. She was hypervigilant about her diet, claiming to have many food allergies–although when she did partake of forbidden items, she never seemed to have the severe gastric consequences she claimed to be avoiding. She hated driving, and especially hated looking for a parking space downtown; it drove her into a frenzy of anxiety and blame-placing like nothing I’ve ever seen. (Are you looking? I need you to look for me! Is that guy leaving? How can you not know?? etc.) She hated being around people she didn’t know unless she was in some position of authority or control. She never left her apartment without a full complement of items she might need during the day, from analgesics and vitamins to golf equipment (even if she had no plans to go golfing). We took a one-week road trip together once, and she brought an extra suitcase full of books, and about a hundred CDs. Also during this trip, she was adamant about avoiding “big city traffic”–so we didn’t get to go to any museums or other “big city” attractions. (We circumvented Washington D.C., for gosh sakes. Washington D.C.! How can you not suck it up and want to see that city?) She spent so much time avoiding situations that might evoke anxiety, it was exhausting to be around her.
This woman is a good example of someone who attempts to control her anxiety by controlling her environment. Well, what’s wrong with that? you might ask. In many cases, nothing. Controlling and changing the things you can and letting go of the things you can’t is a perfectly normal way to deal with anxiety. But there is a spectrum, and if you stray too far to one end of it, you spend so much time and emotional energy trying to control, avoid, and manipulate your environment that there isn’t much time left over for anything else.
Here are three common versions of this hypervigilance:
Hyper-avoidance: Like my friend above. These people spend their lives avoiding people, places, things, and situations which they believe will make them anxious, to the point that the avoidance process itself becomes a source of anxiety. Some of these types consider themselves highly sensitive souls who have bigger reactions to environmental stimuli than others; others are just very fearful and have a hard time coping with unfamiliar situations (and they might have some sort of anxiety disorder).
Hyper-control: Power-seekers, the likes of which you’ll find among politicians, medical doctors (the “god complex”), and the upper echelons of corporate management. These people go to great lengths to exert as much influence as they can over other people and situations. If you’ve ever seen the show Boss, you’ve seen an example of a hyper-controller (and also a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder). People with a need for control also often choose passive people for friends and spouses because they want to feel in control of their “intimate” relationships.
Hyper-manipulation: The buttinsky mother-in-law, the drama queen, the “poor me” victim. These people get others to do what they want by playing on their guilt and pity, or by veiled threats (or sometimes, maybe not so veiled). Some married couples also do this to each other; instead of building intimacy, they threaten and cajole their mates into giving them what they want (I wouldn’t call this a marriage, but a lot of people do).
All of these are versions of control, coping skills people adapt to soothe their anxiety. While these can be effective at getting people what they want (or at least, what they think they want), these coping mechanisms tend to take on a life of their own and become hindrances to emotional stability and the capacity to build develop good, satisfying relationships.
What causes these extremes? I think there are a few contributing factors. One is that, like so many other coping mechanisms, these are a way to feel like you’re in control of (and can thus avoid dealing with) your uncomfortable, troubling emotions. If you’re good at making things go how you want them to, you never have to admit there are things (the past, your emotional pain, how it affects your life) you haven’t dealt with. You can even fool yourself: “Look at the power I have! Nothing could possibly be wrong! Those inner doubts aren’t real, this is.” The payoff is that you get to believe that ignoring those feelings is a perfectly acceptable way to deal with them.
Also, focusing on the external environment is the classic way people distract themselves from what’s going on with, well, themselves. Being controlling has the added bonus of getting good at making things go how you want them to–so you never have to admit things aren’t how you’d like them to be. People who are really good at this can be so cut off from their feelings that they truly believe they’ve overcome them. But this belief can only be maintained by constant focus on your external world and constant avoidance of your internal world. As always, attempts to avoid looking within come at a high price.
This need to control run-amok keeps people in a chronic state of anxiety soothing, so they never address their deeper issues. While they think (even if subconsciously) they’ve cleverly found a get-out-of-jail-free card, what they’ve really found is a way to keep themselves in a perpetual state of avoidance. They’ve mistaken temporary relief for bona-fide healing, and they hang onto it with everything they have–which only adds to their anxiety and creates a devastating loop of delusion and dishonesty that becomes normal and acceptable for them. Give up being controlling and manipulative? In your dreams, pal! This works for me!
Control has so many “positives,” it can be hard for people to see that it is only a ruse, a way they’re avoiding their problems and not a way they’re dealing with them. The sense of power can feel good. Or at least, they mistake it for good, when it’s really just a temporary distraction from feeling bad–which is why they keep doing controlling things. The temporary nature of the “good” feelings from control have to be re-created over and over and over. It becomes a way of life.
This is how monsters are created, because in this chronic state of self-delusion and self-denial, people are capable of just about anything. (They are as divorced from their conscience as they are from their other feelings.) It may not seem like the atrocious acts of psychopathic sickos are borne out of attempts to soothe anxiety. But this is how the behavior starts. The need for control is strongest in people who feel out of control, and an extreme sense of feeling out of control, particularly when combined with antisocial and/or narcissistic tendencies, can have disastrous results. People with highly invalidating childhoods, like Adolph Hitler and most serial killers, fit this profile. As hard as it is to fathom acts of violence as a way to feel control over unresolved feelings, that’s usually what they are–or at least, that’s how they start.
Yes, a very small percentage of people end up monsters. But the control, manipulation, and hypervigilance you see around you all the time are less lethal versions of the same thing. And emotionally speaking, the results are just as unsatisfying.
Few people end up as power hungry politicians or sociopathic monsters, but we all have our own versions of control, manipulation, and vigilance. When we’re scared, when our stress level is high, when we’re in an unfamiliar or threatening situation–or maybe just when we’re pissed off at our partner–we are all capable of using these defenses to cope with our anxiety. Most of us go there temporarily, until our heads have cleared and our adrenaline has stopped pumping. We apologize. We move on. And we try to figure out how we can do it differently, because that feeling of being manipulative or controlling isn’t a good one.
Controlling behavior is ultimately self-defeating. It keeps you in a reactive place, even if it feels like the opposite, because all your decisions center around dealing with your anxiety–and thus, are reactive. And it doesn’t make for good relationships because if you’re too controlling or manipulative, people learn to hide their true thoughts and feelings from you, or avoid you altogether.
Instead, learning to increase your tolerance for anxiety, to accept its inevitability in your life, and to face it with as much emotional honesty as you can muster is a better way to go. And trying to keep your distance from the people who have a permanent address in this controlling place is a good idea, too; they just don’t have a lot to offer.
(Note: People instinctively work to keep the anxiety in their environment to a minimum all the time. I’ve read several great articles lately about effective ways to do this. This series is about ineffective ways people deal with their anxiety. If you’ve ever wondered at how some people behave, or what their motivations are, this might shed some light on it for you.)
When I was playing a lot of poker, I saw people confuse skill with luck all the time. They would have a few winning sessions and think they understood the game. And this wasn’t just in my personal experience. I see people playing on television, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, make terrible mistakes, win anyway, and believe themselves to be expert players. It’s an extremely common phenomenon in poker, because, as the pros say, “the long run in poker is just sooooo long.” This means that you can be lucky for a long time, so long that you get fooled into thinking you know what you’re doing when you really don’t. I’ve cringed as I’ve watched overly aggressive young men try to out-bully each other, thinking this is what makes a player great. But it isn’t. I know some really great players, people who make their living at it. These people are aggressive when necessary, but they are also observant and analytical. They approach the poker table like a problem to be solved. If you know what to look for, watching a truly great player is like watching a ballet. It takes years to develop those skills, skills that include (but are not limited to) patience, timing, reading people, and an absolutely thorough mathematical understanding of the game. I love poker. Sigh. I wish I was better at it.
My partner Jim works in an industry where people frequently confuse reactivity with proactivity. He sells computer software to the CEOs and CFOs of large companies. The deals can be extremely complex, often involving dozens of people and two or three years of work and negotiations. He was fortunate to have had good mentors early in his career, people who showed him how to conduct these intricate sales cycles through skill and knowledge rather than through anxiety and reactivity. It’s a difficult thing to do well, and most people in the field, frankly, aren’t very good at it. Good salesmanship at any level–but especially this level–requires excellent listening skills, empathy, and a desire to help the customer solve his problems. Many–probably most–salespeople don’t understand this very well, so they aren’t good at managing these sales cycles. And because they don’t know how to manage the sales cycles, they feel chronically anxious and out of control. Their anxiety compels them to take action, but such action usually has more to do with feeling like they’re accomplishing something rather than actually doing so. They spend almost all of their time in Covey’s first and third quadrants, reacting to customer queries and management demands rather than carrying out a strategic plan of action.
Many of Jim’s colleagues are among the most anxious, most reactive people I’ve ever known. What’s worse, they are clueless about it. They all think they’re good at their jobs. And similar to poker, when things go well for them it reinforces their reactive behavior, to the point that most sales organizations are rampant with this anxiety-driven, react-rather-than-strategize mentality. This happens in other organizations as well, but I think because of the immense stress and pressure to perform that salespeople are under, the anxiety and reactivity is a little easier to see.
At least it is for an outsider like me–or for a strategic planner like Jim, who must run interference for his reactive colleagues’ blunders on a daily basis.
How can people be so reactive and so blind to their own lack of effectiveness? I think it boils down, more than anything, to a lack of self-awareness. People attribute good luck to skill when they’re delusional about their own capabilities. (Conversely, they attribute bad outcomes to other people’s errors, never to bad luck or their own incompetence.) And they are delusional about their capabilities usually for two reasons. First, they don’t know what they don’t know. Second, they’ve mistaken correlation for causality; that is, they’ve attributed good outcomes to their own actions. They believe the connection is a positive one, indicating that they’re doing all the right things and that they should keep doing them.
One reason people remain ignorant and delusional about their capabilities is that the human brain naturally looks for patterns, and will create them where there aren’t any, or where they aren’t yet apparent because they’re too complex to see. If you’ve spent any time in a casino at all, you’ve seen stellar examples of how people create patterns where there aren’t any: some people will only sit in a certain seat at a blackjack table, or only gamble while wearing a certain shirt, or while holding their good luck charm, etc., etc. While most of us see this as superstition, die hard gamblers believe that these rituals cause them to win. They’re also good at creating explanations, when they lose, as to why the ritual didn’t work: “I forgot I should never play blackjack on a Wednesday,” for example. (The truth is you should never play blackjack at all unless you can count cards or don’t care about losing your money–but that is another topic.) Bad poker players take this a step further, becoming more aggressive when they’re winning and more passive when they’re losing–they truly believe this is the rational action, based on “how the cards are running.” This impulse is so powerful that even good players can succumb to it if they’re having a particularly good or particularly bad game.
Everybody does this to some degree. Finding patterns is how the human brain makes sense of things. If you pay attention, you will see yourself trying to find patterns all the time; sometimes the patterns are real and accurate, and sometimes it’s just your brain attempting to fill in unsettling blanks. Being able to tell the difference is a big step toward understanding causality, and how it really works in your life. It is also a step toward greater self-awareness, as dealing with “life on life’s terms” always is.
Another reason people misjudge their capabilities is that they want to believe they have control over things that they simply do not. It can be a harsh reality to accept that your fate–whether at the poker table, in your career, or even doing something as mundane as driving–is very much out of your hands. (“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”) So instead of accepting this existential truth and working within a legitimate sphere of influence (small as it often is), people reject it and instead choose to believe that they have power and control that doesn’t exist. And because this is what they want to believe, they will ignore evidence to the contrary and see only the evidence that reinforces their wishful thinking.
The underlying reason for both of these is anxiety*, or more to the point, the desire to alleviate anxiety. According to Wikipedia, anxiety is a protective mechanism which alerts an organism to danger. Humans (and other animals) are biologically hard-wired to alleviate anxiety and thus keep their world feeling as cozy and secure as they possibly can. In our modern world, where anxiety centers more around money and career (and for some of us, emotional) issues than it does around survival, it is much easier to delude yourself into a false sense of security than it would be if a lion were trying to make dinner out of you. This is particularly true if the issues that evoke the anxiety are complex, disturbing ones, where solving them would require research, analysis, critical thinking, and intellectual honesty (i.e, “I am pretty much powerless over this situation”). Many of today’s problems fall into this category.
The short of it is that many people want to believe they have control over things they don’t, or that they understand things that they really don’t, because 1) admitting that this is not so evokes strong feelings of anxiety, and 2) the work of actually understanding the problem is more than they want to do.
Self-delusion is just easier.
You’d think that nowadays, with the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips, this problem would be diminishing at a rapid pace. Anyone who really wants to understand poker can find hundreds of websites and books about it in less than three seconds on Google. The same goes for how to sell, and just about any other problem plaguing the human race. You’d think people would take advantage of this bountiful trove and seek to alleviate their anxiety by increasing their knowledge–then bask in the resulting gains of self-confidence that would inevitably follow (knowledge is power–a proven causal relationship).
Sadly, this is not the case. According to The Narcissism Epidemic, people are becoming more delusional and less self-aware. Today, people are more likely to believe in their own intelligence, talent, attractiveness, self-worth, and general all around greatness despite many indications to the contrary. Here are a just a few (of many) statistics from the book:
Over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.
In the 1950s, just 12% of respondents agreed with the statement, “I am an important person.” By the 1980s, 80% felt important.
In 1967, 45% of American students felt that “Being well off is an important life goal.” By 2004, 74% agreed with that statement.
In 1976, only 18% of students said they earned an A or A- average. In 2006, 33% said they were A students–a whopping 83% increase. We have had less than a 1% improvement in actual learning over 30 years (according to standardized testing), but an 83% increase in A grades…Apparently, our culture has decided to go with the strategy of boosting the fantasy of success rather than success itself.
“The fantasy of success” is exactly right. What a telling phrase for the self-delusion that seems to be at the root of so much of the irrationality and reactivity we see today. While common sense demands that we deal with our anxiety by increasing our understanding and awareness about what makes us anxious, narcissism steps in and says it’s good enough to just pretend that we’ve done so. It is astonishing to me that this is the prevalent mindset these days, but it seems to be. The human capacity for self-delusion cannot, apparently, be underestimated.
Contrary to popular belief, self-delusion is not an effective tool for decreasing anxiety. It can be useful temporarily, in crisis situations. But as a standard operating procedure, it can only keep you perpetually stuck in a state of unreality, never to truly know either yourself or the space you occupy. I cannot for the life of me understand why this would appeal to anybody.
*I am speaking of normal anxiety, and not anxiety disorder, which is a different issue.
Before I started down my path of recovery in earnest, I did a lot of reading about recovery. I devoured self-help books, mostly about addiction and relationships (the banes of my young adult existence). I learned a lot about what was wrong with me (or at least, what I thought was wrong with me). But I didn’t stop getting high, and the quality of my relationships didn’t improve, and I remained depressed, anxious, and hopeless most of the time.
I suppose I could count this information-gathering period as part of my recovery. But I don’t, because even though I learned a lot about why I was the way I was, the knowledge didn’t help me change. The knowledge, rich as it was, was just another form of intellectualizing. And as long as I kept everything in my head–which was exactly where I wanted to keep it–I wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t going to get better. I was caught in a closed loop that wouldn’t let me out and couldn’t let anybody else in. Above all, the unrecovered life is isolationist: letting someone see my inner world was the most terrifying prospect imaginable.
Even therapy was primarily an intellectual process for me, at least in the beginning. After several false starts in my early-to-mid-twenties, I did eventually find a lovely woman whom I grew to love and trust in a surprisingly short time. She was so kind, so validating, and so completely understanding. Not to mention patient…that first year must have been hard for her, not saying the things I needed to hear but wasn’t ready to. She was now part of my loop, but it was still closed to everybody else. So I remained mostly stuck, depressed, and addicted. But she did give me some hope that change was possible, and I grabbed onto that like a life preserver (which, psychologically speaking, I suppose it was). This was the beginning.
Back in my 12 Step days, I regularly gave thanks at AA meetings to Officer Baker, the policeman who pulled me over and charged me with the DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) that was the beginning of the end of isolation for me. I haven’t done this in years, but today I am officially re-thanking Officer Baker for arresting me that fateful night. You see, I had always believed that if I didn’t have any consequences, then I didn’t have to change. (In retrospect, this is insane, because I didn’t consider my depression, low self-esteem, shame, rage, resentment, and inability to have relationships to be consequences. This really paints a picture of how utterly ignorant and misguided I was.)
In any case, I considered the DWI a “real” consequence, and I’d always told myself that if I ever had any real consequences from my drinking and drugging, I would have to do something about it. (I guess I didn’t consider seizures and six-hour nosebleeds from my cocaine use consequences, because they hadn’t given me pause, either.) Something in me knew it was time. I had gotten off the cocaine and other hard drugs, but in the year or so since doing that, my drinking had progressed to the point of blackouts. I couldn’t have one drink without closing down the bar, and I’d begun waking up with mysterious bruises and hearing stories about my exploits that felt like they were about somebody else. That was scary.
When I told my therapist about the DWI, she suggested I take the test to determine whether I was chemically dependent. “I don’t have to,” I told her. “I know I am.” She suggested I take it anyway, so that we could look at official options. I did, and of course, she suggested I check myself into a treatment program ASAP.
I either trusted her enough to take her advice, or all the fight had gone out of me, but I did it. Two weeks after this fateful conversation, I found myself in an outpatient treatment program. It was here that I really began to heal, because it was here that I really began to come out of myself and become part of a community. It took me awhile to connect these things, but today I know that my healing began in earnest when I let my walls down and began, instead, to build bridges.
My treatment counselor was also a strong, warm, compassionate woman who set a powerful example of what this path could result in. She was so confident and together that the stories she shared about her using days created a shock of cognitive dissonance that left me wanting to know more, more, more. I wanted what she had.
Even so, I’m not sure if I would have stayed the path without the six months of court-ordered AA meetings handed down in my DWI sentence. Sharing myself was excruciating, with the feelings of exposure so overwhelming and terrifying that they often caused me to hole up in my apartment for days, licking my wounds and wondering how I was going to put myself through that again. Then my therapist would make it all feel better somehow, fortifying me just enough to make it to the next treatment session or the next AA meeting.
Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to lie in these group settings. I knew that people did, and I understood why, but I couldn’t do it. Watching them lie just made me feel so sad. Something inside me, something beyond my capacity to understand, knew that those rooms were built for truth–and that the truth would set me free. And so I found the strength to keep going back, to keep sharing my truth as best I could, and to listen and encourage others to do the same.
Today I know that this sharing is where the magic happens. I may have been able to change had I not become involved in a group, but it would have taken exponentially longer, and the quality of the change would have been very different. I think in sharing with peers–therapists are helpful, but it’s not the same–we are forced to put ourselves out there and become vulnerable, and it is in this vulnerability that we first begin to re-connect with all the big, dark, scary feelings that have been bottlenecked inside us for so long. I think it is probably impossible to bare yourself to a group and not have a visceral, gut-level, bone-shaking response that you feel down to your toes. Sometimes it is terror; sometimes it is exhilaration. But it is this physical response that jars us out of our heads and into the world of true ownership, true self-expression, true recovery.
Accepting painful truths is very, very difficult without a community of people who can mirror and validate our experience. In a way, they are re-parenting us, giving us the encouragement and support to blossom into our truest selves; the encouragement and support we were supposed to get as children, but did not. In lieu of having such a community, I think it would be unbelievably difficult, and maybe impossible, to ever fully own the painful truths of our childhoods and our own emotional brokenness. Doing so would just be too threatening to contemplate alone, in the dark, scary neighborhood of our unadulterated intellect. Or so it was for me.
Thus, in a very real, very literal way, my recovery community has saved my life. And I know I have been part of that for others, and that is a terrific feeling. Telling stories, hearing those of others, the magic of feeling that remarkable similarity when for so long we thought we were alone, hearing the messages “you’re not alone,” “you’re not crazy,” and “you matter.” Feeling heard. All of this is what heals us. And you can’t get it from books.
Books help, and there is a place for them in everyone’s recovery. But they can’t get us into that visceral place where we so need to be. Only baring ourselves before other people, and allowing them to bare themselves before us, can do that. And I am so grateful and feel so privileged to have kept company with so many wonderful groups over the years who’ve helped me heal in more ways than I can even recognize or name.
I also want to say here that I don’t mean to glamorize this group process or gloss over the very real issues that can
occur when recovering people come together. Many of the groups I’ve been a part of no longer exist, or live on in very different forms than when I was a member. Some of them grew apart naturally because as we all changed, our issues changed. Others came apart at the seams after dishonesty and betrayals of confidence. Sometimes a group just had a focus that didn’t work for me, though it worked for many of my fellow travelers. Other times, a group ended after healthy and loving “graduations” and a conscious decision to move on. And there is always the ever present possibility of groupthink, inhibiting people from speaking their truth for fear of disapproval. No group I have ever taken part in has been perfect. I doubt there even is such a thing, or that I would recognize it if there were. It doesn’t matter, though. All that matters is that I was able to move from that awful place of isolation into the imperfect-yet-supremely-healing community of recovery.
It takes a village to raise a really (emotionally) healthy person. Healthy doesn’t mean “fixed” or “perfect;” far from it. It just means we’re on the path. The scales have fallen, we know what we’re up against, we accept the truth of our situations, and we deal.
I just wanted to say “thanks” to all of you who’ve been part of my journey, from Officer Baker to my current ACoN friends. I hope you all know what you mean to me.
If we truly desire to reach a better understanding of each other we have to stop demonizing each other and replace hate with hope.–Karen Hughes
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. – Mother Teresa
Demonizing goes hand in hand with reactivity. When people are reactive, they are externally focused: instead of choosing their actions based on their own thoughts, values, and desires, they re-act to external stimuli. As the Al-Anoners would say, they let other people, places, and things dictate their behavior rather their own needs.
When people are externally focused, they tend to see the world as a big, scary place that needs to be corralled and controlled. They tend to feel helpless and see themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control. Yes, many circumstances are indeed beyond our control. But paradoxically, reactivity tends to make people focus on what they can’t control–other people, places, and things–and ignore what they can: how they choose to deal with these people, places, and things. (This is Al-Anon 101, and one of the most useful lessons I learned in 12 Step meetings.)
One of the most unfortunate side effects of being reactive and externally focused is demonizing the other, also known as scapegoating, or, simply, blaming. When something goes wrong, a reactive person focuses on where to place the blame. He may or may not also look for solutions, but blame-placing usually takes precedence.
I grew up with a reactive, narcissistic, blame-placing father. As I’ve said in other posts, placing blame was the primary concern when something went wrong in my family. Blame was assigned and punishment meted out accordingly. We also had a family scapegoat who, when fault wasn’t clear or the issues were too complicated to work out, took on the “existential,” free-floating blame that kept the home fires burning. A reactive person, and especially a rageful and narcissistic one like my father, always needs to have a “demon” on which to hang his troubles. His life isn’t complete without it.
You can see demonizing at all levels of human interaction. When the President addressed the nation earlier this week about the Boston bombings, his main focus was on apprehending and punishing the person/people responsible. Now yes, of course we want to catch the bombers and bring them to justice. But I’m not sure how healthy it is for we, as a nation, to find comfort in this. We tend to seek vengeance and rejoice in trouncing our enemies instead of seeing the apprehension as the necessary ending to a tragic situation. Because violence in any form, even when necessary, is nothing to rejoice about. Such rejoicing is the result of a reactive mentality, a mentality that says the problem is “out there” and thus solvable by use of aggression to make things go as you think they should. The bomber is coming from a reactive mindset, but so are those who seek revenge (as opposed to justice). And once again, the deeper issues (in this case, probably American tax policy or foreign policy) go unaddressed, perpetuating the chronic cycle of violence and vengeance that takes place on the world stage and all the way down.
All perpetrators are demonizers who see themselves as victims. They have to see themselves as victims, because this is how they rationalize the aggression they use against others. As soon as they’ve found someone to blame, they’ve exonerated themselves, and then–let the games begin! I will make you pay for how I feel is their mantra and their modus operandi. And the scariest part is that, from the U.S. President on down to my bullying father, they truly believe it. When a man says to his wife, “You drive me to drink” or “You must want me hit you,” he really believes it. He’s found a way to twist facts around in his head so as to vindicate himself and make that Other the source of all his problems: his unhappiness, his rage, his insecurity, his temper, his dishonesty, his political posturing–all are the fault of some hapless scapegoat, some demon sent from hell to make his life miserable. He is the victim, and he is unlikely to see himself any other way.
In the vacuum that happens when a person is not raised to have a healthy sense of personal boundaries and responsibility, blame and blame-placing rush in to fill the void. They are two sides of the same coin: you either identify with the demonizer or you identify with the demonized, and learn your coping skills accordingly. Sadly, we either become the perpetrators, demonizing others in order to avoid the emotional pain of our internal world, or we become the scapegoats, taking on that burden for those who refuse to take it on for themselves. It’s a sad situation, but it’s the likeliest outcome of an unhappy childhood. Demonizing and being demonized seem like the most natural thing in the world to a person who grows up this way.
It can take a lot of effort to move past this ingrained mindset. Usually such effort is only made after a great deal of emotional pain and repeated experiences of things going wrong in your life. Since being demonized feels so awful–much worse than doing the demonizing–it is the scapegoats of the world who tend to seek change. From beneath their burden of projected shame, guilt, and rage, they have much more incentive to do so.
This is not to say that the demonizers of the world are unable to change. Many do. But being the demonizer is a much stronger defense against one’s repressed emotional pain than is being the demonized. Not only does it involve greater irrationality and rationalization to maintain, it also tends to result in a sense of power, however pointless and misguided it may be. The demonizers of the world are not only the bullying narcissistic fathers and controlling narcissistic mothers, they are also the Adolph Hitlers and the Joseph Stalins. The impulse to demonize, and the need to rationalize doing so, is the underlying cause of much of the aggression in the world.
As people who grew up with reactive, narcissistic, blame-placing parents, we have three choices: accept our role as scapegoats, follow in their footsteps, or look within and come to terms with what we find there. The first choice feels awful. The second choice feels better, but only at the expense of our emotional truth and the constant need to construct a false reality that projects our inner turmoil onto innocents. The third choice is our only option if we want to take back our lives and and find some true sense of autonomy.
The payoff of demonizing is that you don’t have to look within. Thus, you think you can escape all those nasty, uncomfortable feelings and conveniently project them somewhere where they cease to be your responsibility. But this is a straw man, a solution that is no solution at all. Because no matter how hard you try to escape those feelings, they never, ever go away. No matter how much you blame and scapegoat and try to make your rage somebody else’s problem, you are still stuck with it. What feels like power is really just the Wizard behind the curtain creating illusions that fool even himself. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
As appalled as I am by the demonizers of the world, and as much as I’ve had to learn to protect myself from their hostility and rage, I also feel sorry for them. They are the lost souls who do not know they are lost souls. If their delusions didn’t cause so much harm in the world, they would be pathetic.
I heard a story on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me the other day about a ban placed on triangular shaped flapjacks (in England, a flapjack is a granola bar, not a pancake) after a student was hit in the face with one. The sharp corners of the triangular-shaped bar could potentially put an eye out, deemed school officials, so the flapjack providers were told to henceforth allow only rectangular shaped ones into the school. The ban was so ridiculous that it was lifted after a short time. Yet the fact that such a ban could happen at all is a good example, I think, of the extreme reactivity of our modern culture.
Wikipedia defines psychological reactivity as “a phenomenon that occurs when individuals alter their performance or behavior due to the awareness that they are being observed.” In other words, when people are being reactive, they are externally-focused rather than internally-focused. This means that reactivity happens when people care too much about circumstances and too little about their own values, common sense, and critical thinking. When we react, as opposed to when we respond, we are not centered. It’s the difference between choosing your behavior and letting others choose it for you.
And it is ubiquitous in our culture.
School bans are just the beginning. You can see this reactivity just about everywhere you look. Another absurd example is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a champion of the war against obesity, attempting to restrict the size of soda you can buy. (Does he actually believe a person won’t just go buy another one? Or two small ones? Or go to a grocery store and buy as much as he wants, for the love of Pete?) And then there is the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), making us remove our belts and shoes, restricting our liquid containers to 2 ounces (never mind that you can have an unlimited number of them), and dosing us with X-rays before we board a plane, all in the name of fighting terrorism. I don’t know about you, but these dogmatic bureaucrats don’t make me feel any safer, especially when I see men in their 80s, with canes, detained for further questioning. (I actually saw this last time I flew.)
Reactivity is all over politics, too, where the careers of politicians are made or broken by how they react to public opinion and the latest crisis (no wonder it feels like nothing ever gets handled well and why so many issues feel like constantly moving targets). It also thrives in the media, where the 24 hour news channels compete with attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalistic stories meant to titillate more than inform. And you can see it in almost any workplace, as people strive to make themselves look good, often at the expense of other people and of achieving longer-term goals. All of these are examples of externally-focused behavior.
The primary problem with reactivity (or at least the problem I’m looking at here) is that it is not about solving problems so much as it is about alleviating anxiety. When people are in reactive mode, they are acting out of fear and anxiety and not from a place of rational thought. Or, when there is an audience to consider, as in politics and the media, they are acting to produce a desired effect (re-election, higher ratings, selling a product). So very few problems ever get addressed at their root, and very few problems ever get truly solved. Instead they just get regurgitated, over and over and over, in an endless cycle of crisis and unsolvability.
A good example is the latest gun control debate, which was re-awakened by the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook). Instead of looking at all the massively complex issues that underlie such an act, politicians and the media have focused almost solely on guns. This is like focusing on matches in the war on smoking, or sizes of soda in the war on obesity. It misses the point almost entirely, and will not result in understanding why a person would make such a decision. Not that guns aren’t an issue, because they are–but they are at the end of the causal chain and not at the beginning of it, where intervention is actually possible. (By the time that kid picks up that gun, it’s too late.) But because guns provide a simple, polarizing target and create the illusion that “we” (society) are dealing effectively with a serious issue (regardless of which side of the debate you happen to be on), the powers that be latch onto them like barnacles onto a whale. Nobody cares that it’s all for show–much like the security theater the TSA engages in–as long as we can feel like something relevant is happening. (e.g., “If flapjacks are shaped a certain way, we can prevent all possible harm to students!” “If we restrict access to guns, people will stop being violent!”) Surfaces get manipulated and rearranged in an aggressive, frenzied sort of way, but underlying issues are rarely addressed. If you pay attention, you can see this happening just about anywhere you look, from politicians vying for sound bytes and photo ops to the drama queen down the block who can’t seem to get her life in order.
(Note: I know gun control is a complex, highly charged issue. I don’t mean to dumb it down, or make it sound unnecessary. I am just saying that people focus on it too much because it’s easier than looking at the deeper issues involved, and that they do so because it creates an illusion of control that doesn’t really exist.)
Why is our modern culture so reactive? Probably because of the illusion of control I mention above: feeling like we’re in control is how we alleviate anxiety. Also, probably because reactivity is just easier. It demands no detailed understanding of an issue and few critical thinking skills. It requires no calling on one’s personal value system for answers. (As I’ve said many times, it’s much easier to believe we’re doing something than to actually do something.) And reactivity usually involves blame, too, another favorite American pasttime that dumbs everything down to the level of demonization and scapegoats, thus exonerating us from personal responsibility.
There is little we can do about the reactivity that bombards us every day in the media, in politics, and in our workplace; part of being less reactive is accepting what we can’t change. But we can be aware of it so that it exerts as little influence over our thinking and our lives as possible. And, we can work at becoming less reactive ourselves. This can be a tall order, not only because we’re swimming against the cultural tide, but because so many of us learn from a young age that reactivity is perfectly normal. We see our parents poking, prodding, and manipulating each other, pushing buttons and triangulating, pouting, raging, and plotting. How, in such an environment, can a child learn that she gets to choose her responses? That she is supposed to choose her responses? In a culture that normalizes reactivity, it can be hard to see this, much less change it; in a family that normalizes reactivity, it can be almost impossible.
It is an exceptional child indeed who can transcend this miasma. Most of us have to re-learn communication skills as adults, and not being reactive is at the top of that list, largely because being reactive just feels so bad: when we react rather than respond, we’re not in control. We’re letting other people, places, things, and our own anxiety dictate our behavior. It feels awful, usually long before we know why it feels awful.
In the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses a matrix to talk about reactivity; actually, he calls it Time Management Skills, but tomato, tomahto–the model is really illustrating the impotence of reactivity. The matrix is: Important/Urgent, Important/Not Urgent, Not Important/Urgent, and Not Important/Not Urgent:
Covey’s Time Management Matrix.
People with poor time management skills (i.e., reactive people) tend to spend the bulk of their time in the Important/Urgent and Not Important/Urgent quadrants, which means they’re constantly dealing with emergencies and “putting out fires.” Then, because they’re so exhausted from all this crisis management, they tend to spend the rest of their time in the Not Important/Not Urgent quadrant (essentially, screwing off) to alleviate their stress. The goal, Covey says, is to spend the bulk of your time in the Not Urgent/Important quadrant. This is the planning quadrant, where you analyze, strategize, and problem-solve before things turn into crises. The more time you spend here, the less time you will spend in the other quadrants, and the more effective, productive, and proactive you will be.
Years ago in a meditation retreat, I did a guided meditation I’ll call “The Mountain.” The guide had us imagine ourselves to be a mountain, tall and deep, strong and old. Though the seasons changed, and the weather battered it, and time passed and the surface of the mountain constantly changed, the mountain itself remained solid, rooted deeply in the earth, grounded, unchanged. The point, of course, was that we should be like the mountain: that we should identify more with our inner character, and not worry so much about the ephemeral events taking place on the surface.
This too is a lesson about reactivity. If we are centered and inner-focused, we will be less inclined to react to the external events that are inevitably going to pummel us throughout life. I have found the mountain to be a helpful image as I strive to become less reactive, particularly in relation to working through my past and living life on my own terms.